“Our North Star.” What We Can Learn from One Equity Funder’s Journey So Far

photo: Dan Schreiber/shutterstock

photo: Dan Schreiber/shutterstock

Around the U.S., foundations continue to adopt equity strategies to tackle racial and economic disparities in their communities. Equity is a defining challenge of our time, and it has become a driving force of philanthropy over the last couple years. But while many funders are still trying to figure out what that means alongside their longstanding missions, others have had a few years to settle into equity-focused programming and assess their progress so far.

The San Francisco Foundation (TSFF) was one of the early adopters of equity grantmaking, a shift that was hardly surprising. This funder had long been a leader in pushing for a more inclusive San Francisco, and already stood out among community foundations for its strong commitment to social justice. But making equity the foundation’s North Star to guide all its work took things to the next level.

It’s now been more than two years since TSFF rolled out its new strategy. This summer, TSFF released a report that provides an overview of its journey over the past few years and the lessons that it has learned along the way.

The report chronicles the milestones TSFF has marked in its equity agenda development process, from early conversations in June 2014 to the announcements of the first equity-focused grants in June 2017. To learn more about what the foundation has been doing with regard to equity since that time, we got in touch with Judith Bell, TSFF’s vice president of programs, to ask a few questions.

To begin, it’s important to remember that TSFF wears many hats in its equity-building work: civic leader, advocate, grantmaker, philanthropic partner and convener. It’s also been working across multiple issue areas. In recent months, though, the foundation has focused heavily on affordable housing. This is a topic of intense concern within San Francisco amid rapid gentrification, rising prices and growing evictions. Earlier this year, TSFF’s CEO Fred Blackwell commented that the housing situation is “particularly dire for people at the lower end of the economic spectrum. Once forced out of their homes, there are precious few places in the region they can still afford to live.” Blackwell co-chairs a commission on housing under the auspices of the regional transportation agency.

Bell told Inside Philanthropy,In a region where two minimum-wage workers can only afford rent in 5 percent of the region’s neighborhoods, we are focused on working with our many partners to address the housing crisis. In addition to our grantmaking and program-related investments, we are using our resources and voice to advocate for policy changes to provide the means to produce and preserve affordable housing, and to ensure new protections for tenants so they can stay in their homes and communities.”

TSFF’s housing work reflects a broader goal of its equity strategy: to play a stronger leadership role in creating a more inclusive region. As part of the new strategy, the foundation also changed how its operates, looking to break down silos and embrace cross-cutting approaches.

Bell told us that change is never easy, especially for an organization with deep roots in so many communities and across such a diverse region. Yet for TSFF, she said it was more about communicating the interconnectedness of the foundation’s grantmaking and developing the internal muscles to collaborate in new ways: “When we moved from the more traditional, issue-based grantmaking categories into cross-collaborative ‘pathways,’ as we call them, there was some lack of clarity about our new approach. For instance, areas such as education and the arts, for which we have a long funding history, were mistakenly seen as areas we no longer funded. Both are still a strong part of our work. Our arts and education funding are part of our integrated, overarching equity strategy, and we’ve had to be clear both internally and externally about how these issues fit into the larger picture.”

Looking ahead to the remainder of 2018 and into the future, Bell said that TSFF will continue to be “all in” on equity, and also continuing to engage and learn from its grantees, partners and donors. “And as such, we are expanding our civic leadership by strengthening and deepening our partnerships, while we are also elevating the voice of the foundation on issues ranging from housing to immigration to commercial property tax reform.”

One reason that TSFF released this report, titled “Advancing Equity: Reimagining the Ways a Community Foundation Delivers on Its Mission,” was to help others in the sector find useful insights from its experience. Among the takeaways that Bell stressed is that data matters as foundations search for better ways to tackle equity on the local level—especially disaggregated data.

The report echoes this point: “… investments in reliable data systems are fundamental, not a frill. They are absolutely vital in supporting ambitious, integrated strategies and to work across disciplines, fields, and sectors to achieve significant and measurable equity goals.”

“But data alone does not build strategies,” Bell said. “It is important to take what you learn from the disaggregated data and engage the community by listening to them. And you have to be prepared to make changes based on what you learn. Working on equity is a journey, not a destination.”

TSFF emphasized listening from the start of this journey four years ago, when the foundation launched a series of community listening sessions in the Bay Area. TSFF has also held consultative sessions with place-based experts, including thought leaders, policy experts, nonprofit partners, and opinion leaders.

“Both of these engagement opportunities were critical to shaping our equity agenda and how we reshaped our grantmaking,” Bell said.

TSFF’s report includes other takeaways, such as the importance of shifting donors away from a charity mindset to one of change-making.

You can download and read the report here. However, grantseekers should know that TSFF is no longer taking applications for this year’s equity grants open cycle. Stay tuned for the next equity program award announcements in October 2018.